The federal government's interoperability regulations have been the talk of healthcare’s technology sector for years—perhaps the only thing that could have eclipsed them was a worldwide pandemic.
2020 kicked off with CMS and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology releasing their long-awaited rules on interoperability, application programming interfaces and information-blocking, mandates that industry watchers have been waiting on since the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016.
But the pandemic caused the industry to quickly shift gears. Hospitals across the country spent the early spring building up their telehealth infrastructure, with resources stretched thin to accommodate needs like buying video equipment and other technologies designed to connect people from afar, training staff on how to conduct virtual visits and establishing processes that don’t compromise cybersecurity.
In April, 43.5% of Medicare primary-care visits were provided through telehealth, compared to just 0.1% in February, before the public health emergency. Telehealth spending could grow to $250 billion a year as COVID-19 paves the way for virtual care, according to a report from McKinsey & Co., which determined about 20% of all office, outpatient and home health expenses across Medicare, Medicaid and commercially insured populations could be converted to virtual care.
The pandemic has showcased both the benefits and shortfalls of telehealth this year, providing an avenue for millions of patients to continue to receive care amid stay-at-home orders while also highlighting the so-called “digital divide,” as patients without access to reliable high-speed internet or devices with video capabilities often had to rely on audio-only telephone calls. And rapid adoption of telehealth hasn’t been enough to quell the concerns of some quality analysts. Meantime, providers are watching what telehealth regulatory waivers and reimbursement boosts added during the pandemic remain after it’s over.
Still, companies are betting on sustained interest in telehealth. Amwell in September went public with a $100 million investment from Google, and Teladoc Health in October closed an $18.5 billion merger with Livongo. SOC Telemed, a telehealth company, in November went public through a combination with a special-purpose acquisition company.